Why does reality TV hate women?

Half the population is getting a raw deal on screen. Fiona Sturges says it's time to switch off the sexism
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The Independent Culture

There are lots of reasons why I like to watch television: to keep up to date with current affairs, to have my eyes opened by a new documentary or occasionally – OK, frequently – to anaesthetise my brain with a soap opera.

If there's something that I don't expect while slumped on the sofa, it's to be made to feel worthless and inadequate, to be told that my skin's too sallow, my backside's too bulky, my house is too shabby, my children are feral and my relationship is hanging by a thread. This is a shame, because right now there are increasing numbers of reality programmes that insist on telling me just that.

OK, they're not addressing me personally, though if they were it would somehow be less depressing. In fact, it's the whole of womankind these shows are geared towards. With their galleries of sad-sack singletons, dispirited wives, shell-shocked mothers, neurotic twentysomethings and body dysmorphic teens, there's now a degree of egalitarianism in how reality programmes approach women. Ultimately, it seeks to undermine and humiliate us all.

A current perpetrator is BBC3's Snog, Marry, Avoid? billed as the first ever "make-under" show, which sets out to transform girls (with the odd token bloke thrown in) who are heavy on the make-up and light on clothing. As we view them in cruel close-up, a disembodied voice lists their crimes against fashion and, to make its point, gets a random man on the street to say how ghastly they look. It then removes their warpaint, hoses them down and kits them out in new clothes.

At the end, they express their gratitude and are triumphantly referred back to Man on the Street, who invariably declares them fit for marriage.

If you think that's bad, then let me refer you to its sister programme Hotter Than My Daughter, in which a mutton-dressed-as-lamb mother and her dowdy daughter are put under the fashion microscope in a bid to make both feel as revolting and unsightly as possible. A battalion of hairdressers, stylists and make-up artists are then wheeled out to tease, poke and bully them both into being presentable. As their new looks are unveiled, on comes the presenter Liz McClarnon to give them a tear-stained, life-affirming hug, as if she has just brokered world peace.

According to these shows, happiness is a new hairstyle, self-fulfilment is the approval of a man you haven't met and marriage the ultimate goal. Crucially, it tells us that beauty really is skin deep. Feeling empowered yet, girls?

Reality girl-battering began 10 years ago with What Not to Wear, a programme in which the two-headed beast named Trinny and Susannah stripped women to their underclothes and manhandled their excess flesh as a baker does dough. More recently we've had 10 Years Younger, which frequently advocates surgery as a solution to self-esteem problems. And Gok Wan is also back on our screens with his Clothes RoadShow, yelping: "You go, girl," while pointing out women's physical deficiencies.

It's not just our appearance that's under attack. There are also shows highlighting women's failure to control their children (Supernanny, Little Angels), and their inability to keep a tidy house (Wife Swap, How Clean Is Your House?), where husbands and fathers remain on the periphery, innocent bystanders in their own domestic disasters. In the US, shows such as The Bachelor, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? and The Real Housewives show women how to achieve that most venerable goal: a life of leisure.

If there's something to be gleaned from all this, it's that producers and commissioning editors are happy to present women as marriage-obsessed, self-loathing and often devious desperados with antiquated views about masculine and feminine roles. More chilling is that they seem to view women as broken and in need of fixing. In truth, it's the genre that is broken, claiming to show us reality while presenting pure artifice. If you're looking for feminine empowerment, there's only one thing to do: reach for the "off" button.